Who Is In Control, the Computer or the Pilots?

We’ve been down this road before with automation taking control of aircraft leading to crashes or departures of flight. The Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes in the last few months has resulted in the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft. So far the culprit seems to be an automation system that automatically recovers an aircraft from a dangerous stall. It appears that the automation is forcing the pilots to fight with a computer intent on pulling the nose down leading to the crashes.

The thing is that we’ve been down this road before.

On October 7, 2008, Qantas Flight 72 flying from Singapore to Perth unexpectedly nose dived twice over the ocean. The pilots were able to recover both nose dives and the aircraft landed at Learmonth. The crew and passengers survived their ordeal.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau found that a software glitch in the Airbus A330 fly-by-wire system issued erroneous information that forced the computer to assume that the aircraft was in a dangerous pitch and about to stall leading the computer to assume control of the aircraft and pitch the nose down to recover. However, the aircraft was stable at the time of the error and the computer’s order to pitch down rapidly descending the aircraft.

The conclusion of the investigation did not find the cause of the computer glitch but determined that it was a computer glitch that led to the dangerous descent. Two months later, on December 27, 2008, another Qantas A330-300 (Flight 71) flying from Perth to Singapore experienced the same automated pitch down issue. The crew, having knowledge of the 72 problem, disconnected the computer and returned without further incident to Perth.

In November 2014, another similar incident happened to a Lufthansa flight out of Spain. The aircraft rapidly descended from 31,000 to 27,000 in less than a minute. The investigation revealed that the computer also received erroneous information and activated the emergency nose pitch down.

As the investigation into the two crashes concludes the important question that everyone should be asking is who is in control? The computers or the pilots.

With commercial pilots not only landing at the wrong airports but also in the wrong countries it begs the question of whether aviation has become too automated.

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